Few people see children as a threat but it seems racial stereotypes can change that.
A new study has found stereotypes linking black men with violence and criminality can result in black children as young as five being identified as dangerous.
White people taking part in the research were more likely to misidentify a toy as a weapon after seeing the face of a black five-year-old boy, compared to a white youngster.
He believes these can unintentionally influence behaviour even if a person believes they are not racist.
‘Our findings suggest that, although young children are typically viewed as harmless and innocent, seeing faces of five-year-old Black boys appears to trigger thoughts of guns and violence,’ Dr Todd said.
‘One of the most pernicious stereotypes of Black Americans, particularly black men, is that they are hostile and violent.
‘So pervasive are these threat-related associations that they can shape even low-level aspects of social cognition.’
In the study, published in the journa Psychological Science, Dr Todd and his colleagues showed 64 white college students images of children’s faces before pictures of toys or weapons.
They were told the first image was merely a signal that the second image was about to appear and they were to concentrate as identifying the second image as a toy, such as a rattle, or a gun as quickly as possible.
The children’s faces included six images of black five-year-old boys and six images of white five-year-old boys.
The researchers found the students tended to be quicker at recognising guns after seeing a black child’s face than the face of a white child.
They also more often mistakenly categorised toys as weapons after seeing pictures of the black boys.
But they also mistook weapons for toys after seeing a white child’s face.
It demonstrates that black skin colour has become so associated with violence that it causes people to more readily link the two together, even when it is incorrect.
A second set of experiments saw white students shown the faces of both children and adults before categorising a second image of either a tool or a gun.
Again, after seeing a black face regardless of age, there was a bias for categorising objects as weapons.
Threat related words including violent, dangerous, hostile and aggressive were also more strongly associated with images of black boys than white boys.
Dr Todd said the findings also appear to be reflected in the real-world, which is what inspired the research.
He said: ‘In this case, it was the alarming rate at which young African Americans – particularly young black males – are shot and killed by police in the US.
‘Although such incidents have multiple causes, one potential contributor is that young black males are stereotypically associated with violence and criminality.’